Friday, February 12, 1016

Friday, February 12, 1016

Budget crisis in the spotlight; TOPS payments suspended; Revenue sharing threatened and; Common Core lawsuit dropped

Budget crisis in the spotlight

Gov. John Bel Edwards took to the statewide airwaves Thursday in an attempt to make clear that the stakes in the upcoming special session couldn’t be higher. Without new revenues, Louisiana won’t have enough money to deliver basic health care services for the poor and provide college scholarships to students who’ve earned them, among other things. Julia O’Donoghue of Times-Picayune has more.


“The health care services that are in jeopardy literally mean the difference between life and death,” Edwards said during a live address carried on several television stations. The governor didn’t stop at health care services, but also detailed catastrophic cuts to higher education. He said new revenue was needed to prevent universities from running out of money before the semester ends. LSU, the state’s wealthiest higher education institution, would only be able to pay its bills through April 30, unless some tax increases went into place. The governor went so far as to say that LSU football was also in jeopardy. He said the state would no longer be able to afford one of its most popular programs with middle class residents — the TOPS college scholarship — without tax hikes. “Student athletes across the state would be ineligible to play next semester,” Edwards said. “I don’t say this to scare you. But I am going to be honest with you.”


The governor’s staff announced Thursday that the state’s current year budget deficit has reached $940 million — a price tag larger than the annual spending on LSU’s Baton Rouge campus and all of New Orleans public higher education institutions combined. The state must find a way to close the gaping budget gap by June 30, when it closes the books on the fiscal year. Once it resolves that budget crisis, Louisiana will be facing an immediate $2 billion shortfall in the next fiscal cycle, which starts July 1. Edwards is proposing cuts — but also large tax hikes — to deal with the financial crises both this year and next year.


TOPS payments suspended

The uncertainty surrounding the budget prompted Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration to suspend   TOPS payments to college campuses  to cover the cost of academic scholarships. The cost of TOPS, an extremely popular scholarship program, has ballooned over the years as tuition has risen and the program is currently $28.3 million over budget because last year’s Legislature did not include enough money to cover rising tuition. Rebekah  Allen of The Advocate has the story.


Higher education leaders started sounding the alarms about TOPS being over budget last year. Lawmakers dedicated about $265 million to TOPS for the year, but by August, LOSFA already was projecting a shortfall, saying legislators didn’t account for tuition hikes made possible through the GRAD Act.  Legislators have for years been dealing with the dramatic increases in the cost of TOPS to the state. In 2001, TOPS had a price tag of about $104 million. But it’s projected to swell beyond $300 million by 2020. While LSU leads in TOPS eligible students, the University of Louisiana-Lafayette has 37 percent of its students in TOPS, Nicholls and Louisiana Tech have about 35 percent and the University of New Orleans has 23 percent. About 10 percent of Southern University’s students receive the scholarship.


Revenue sharing threatened

The Obama administration is proposing to do away with sharing revenues from offshore drilling with Gulf states, threatening money that Louisiana is supposed to receive for coastal restoration project. Under the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, Louisiana stands to receive $176 million next year. The president’s budget proposal would instead funnel those dollars to Alaska to deal with rising seas. As Cain Burdeau of the Associated Press reports, the proposal has some harsh critics, including a senator from Alaska.


The proposal was swiftly blasted by Republican U.S. Sens. David Vitter and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and U.S. Rep. Don Young, both Republicans from Alaska. “The President’s budget calls this funding unnecessary — which is a complete insult,” Vitter said in a statement Wednesday. “Maybe he needs to get down and see our disappearing coasts, before he talks about eliminating the funds to restore them. Fortunately, the proposal will die an immediate death.” Murkowski said in a news release that she wanted to help Alaskan communities, but not “by depriving other states of money they currently rely upon for their budgets.” She said efforts to help Alaska’s coastal communities should be paid for by increasing domestic energy production. Environmental groups also came out against the proposal.


Common Core lawsuit dropped

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry tried to fight Gov. John Bel Edwards decision to drop a lawsuit filed by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration against the federal government over Common Core. Melinda Deslatte of the Associated Press reports that the lawsuit claimed that federal authorities were trying to force states to adopt the math and English education standards.


Edwards, a Democrat, has been a critic of Common Core. But he said the former governor’s appeal was expensive and unnecessary, given a new federal law, known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which bars the federal government from mandating standards. He also noted the state’s recent work to revise the standards. Landry, a Republican, said Edwards was too quick to drop the lawsuit, leading to a war of words in publicly released letters and in court filings. But, Thursday afternoon he joined Edwards’ motion to dismiss the suit. “The Attorney General, after independently reviewing this matter, has concluded he no longer opposes dismissing this appeal,” Landry attorney Elizabeth Murrill wrote in a motion at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That motion came shortly after Edwards’ executive counsel, Matthew Block, filed a motion saying Landry had no authority to intervene in a lawsuit Jindal had filed on behalf of the governor’s office.


Number of the Day

49,710 – The number of students potentially affected by a suspension in TOPS payments announced Thursday. (Source: The Advocate)